London Eyes

By Stephen Barber and Jeremy Reed


Author Stephen Barber explores the confrontation between film and London’s urban space. Then, celebrated poet Jeremy Reed takes a filmic walk through Soho to evoke Derek Jarman and his collaboration with Marc Almond.

A Revealing Screen

London, over the twentieth century, gathered a layered network of resonant filmic imageries of itself that gradually formed a revealing screen, drawing the eye of the urban spectator into the city’s transmutations, expansions and disasters. The literary creation of London and its spaces that had profoundly engaged and recast its inhabitants over the nineteenth century now shifted focus as literature began to work in alliance and in tension with a visual medium which, at its origins, appeared disreputable and unstable as a form for representing the city. Film reconfigured the city with such immediacy that it required a fundamental accommodation of perception and structure for literature to adapt itself to that medium.

To some extent, the innovations generated by the modernist experience of the city, in literature and film – experienced throughout Europe’s urban cultures to their maximal degree in the 1920s – allowed that welding-together of literature with cinema to take place, at the very moment when cinema itself was finally divesting itself of its initial aura of insalubriousness, with its ascendance into London’s urban life marked pre-eminently by the construction on the city’s central and suburban avenues of a vast network of cinema-palaces that, even in their contemporary destitution and absence, remain the prominent evidence of film’s original seizure of the spaces of London.

In the 1920s and 1930s, while generating narratives and imageries of the city’s social and familial conflicts for the mass-audiences of its picture-palaces, film also reacted to London as an imperative entity that demanded experimentation with its own forms. Many of the filmmakers who became engaged with that visual exploration of the city’s multiplicitous textures and infinite histories came to London as exiles or refugees from the upheavals and persecutions of central and eastern Europe, thereby strengthening the representation of London as a site of displacement and sensory flux that had already achieved a forceful presence in the literature of the Victorian era.

In modernist London, the forms of the city needed to be radically disassembled or fragmented in order to meet the sensorial and perceptual requirements of their new literary and filmic architects. While diverse experiments in the forms of the city were being pursued across Europe in the 1920s, especially in Germany and the Soviet Union, to instigate the seminal genre of the ‘city-film’, London possessed an exceptional status in that reinvention of the city, its imageries carrying disquietening resonances of exile rather than the more habitual textures of urban exhilaration. The imageries created by London’s displaced filmmakers of the 1920s and 1930s would acquire new significance in the 1960s and 1970s, when the city again became a focus for interrogative experiments into both its spatial forms and its political stasis.

The destruction of large areas of London by German bombing during the Second World War formed a crucial puncture point in the city’s filmic representation, just as it did in all other creative media of the city. But film secured a distinctive status for itself in its depiction of the impact of cancelled urban space and of the human response to that calamity. In a sense, the films of London’s conflagrations – both the often–surreal documentary films of Humphrey Jennings and the anonymous newsreels projected nightly to vast wartime audiences in the city as a prelude to the main evening feature – operated with the same strategy of generating airless vacuums and voided space as the fire-bombing itself: in their ferocity and vivid splendour, the film images of London in flames largely supplanted and pre-empted any other medium’s effective representation of the city in meltdown, including that of literature. London had experienced a prescient film imagery of that threat to its existence several years earlier, with the newsreels of the Crystal Palace’s destruction by fire in 1936. And ultimately, the films of London’s conflagration – inassimilable as events in their moment – would be set against film-documents of the more engulfing decimation inflicted upon Germany’s cities in the subsequent war-years, so that London’s own opaque inferno would be transformed into the determining element of a transparent narrative of resilience.

London again disintegrated as a filmic city during the 1980s as the city underwent its corporate and technological envelopment within a political culture that existed at extreme variance with the factors that had made London a compelling filmic and literary space over the previous century; that political period was retrospectively anatomised as one of violent urban nullification, and of all-consuming banalisation, in Patrick Keiller’s unique 1992 film-essay of the city, London. But in contemporary London, the powerful form of the digital city, with its corporate screens and surface homogeneity, conceals vast zones of peripheral spaces and image-seamed layers which carry the open potential to inspire and incite urban filmmakers, just as they do for contemporary poet-explorers of the city.

What Colour is Time?

What colour is time when you try to remember it? It’s 1984 – five years after Derek Jarman took a lease on a studio flat in Phoenix House, above the Phoenix Theatre off Charing Cross Road, a compactly minuscule, but functional base, the uncurtained window set like a grid framing the Soho skyline. I associate time then with aqueous white rain skies over Leicester Square, and as candy coloured stripes: pink and white, maroon and grey, pistachio and russet bands according to my abstract notation of big city seasons.


Jarman’s studio, reached by an anonymous door, with a clunky semi-industrial lift ascending to his fourth floor flat choked with his paintings, books, a fold-up bed, a metal office desk and looking out at the sky-reflecting windows of St Martin’s School of Art, was the epicentre for well over a decade of electrifying creativity, AIDS agitprop as Jarman went public about his HIV status, and intense kamikaze forays into the West End club scene. Jarman regularly visited Bang directly opposite his building, Blitz, Pink Panther, Flamingo, Heaven and the Sanctuary, as well as his favourite back room at the Subway in Leicester Square.

In 1984, Jarman found himself in something of a creative hiatus – lacking the finance to commit to the Caravaggio project he was researching, and taking advantage of the interlude to review his past through a comprehensive retrospective of his paintings at the ICA and the publication of Dancing Ledge, the first of his experimental and intransigently outspoken autobiographies. And in need of space in which to paint and put up a wall of his books, he rented a small room at 20 Hanway Works, one of the gun-barrel narrow alleyways just off the Phoenix House complex.

At the same time as Jarman was considering shooting pop videos to provide some necessary income, the singer Marc Almond, living less than a quarter of a mile away on Brewer Street at the heart of Soho’s lugubrious red light district, was planning to release his first solo album, appropriately called Vermin in Ermine. The exotic, epic-voiced Almond, who had risen to fame with the Northern Soul dance hit Tainted Love and who had quickly grown disaffected with Soft Cell’s winning electro-pop formula and angry at the commercial failure of Marc and The Mambas as a serious sideline, had for his first solo project embraced his true identity as a torch singer. He was living in a one bedroom flat on the third floor of a red-brick mansion-block facing out over Madame JoJo’s cabaret bar in Brewer Street and the Raymond Revuebar Theatre with its jumpy chilli-red neon illuminating his windows. Almond’s infatuation with sleaze had brought him to live in it as a reality. From the safety of his unlit living room, his voyeuristic eye monitored nocturnal Soho, finding in its fugitive characters the inspiration for many of the finely crafted songs included on Vermin in Ermine.

That the two artists were linked by a shared neighbourhood, as well as elective affinities extending to the use of camp as an expression incorporated into their art, led to Almond suggesting that Jarman shoot the low-budget video for the third single lifted from his album Tenderness is a Weakness. Jarman, who referred to pop videos as ‘a cinema of small gestures’, was attracted to the form largely as a means of helping finance his more serious artistic projects. That he brought imagination to the work and could earn £1,000 for a few days’ filming encouraged him to apply his characteristic theatre-skills to the medium.

The Soho of Marc Almond’s imagination, one in which rent boys crowded on the black railings at Piccadilly Circus and mini-skirted hookers trafficked in the alleys, had almost disappeared by 1984, airbrushed by increasingly omniscient CCTV cameras and the ubiquitous politics of totalitarianism. Soho’s disaffected bohemians still convened in cafés along Old Compton Street, at Maison Bertaux in Greek Street almost opposite Oscar Wilde’s old nightspot Kettners, and of course in its landmark bars and drinking-clubs such as The Colony, made famous by Francis Bacon.

I asked what colour time was in 1984. It was pearl grey; the skies were consistently opalescent as they so often are over the West End. I associate time with the colours memory constellates. Pearl banded with charcoal and dark blue. When Vermine in Ermine was released I bought my copy from the HMV store in Oxford Street and cut into Soho on a simmering autumn day, nitrogen dioxide air quality 40ppb, and caught sight of Marc Almond’s alertly paranoid, wiry, harassed figure cutting it along Berwick Street as though he was being pursued. He was hurrying back home and I to meet a friend in a precinct that always seems to me a starting point for London’s imagination.

London Eyes: Reflections in Text and Image, edited by Gail Cunningham and Stephen Barber, will be published in October by Berghahn Books